Study: State a national model for teen justice
by Ken Dixon
Arrest and incarceration rates for teens have fallen off sharply, thanks to the state's "raise the age" effort and a series of community collaborations that discourage juvenile crime.
That's a finding of a study released Wednesday by the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute that calls Connecticut a national leader in juvenile reforms.
The state's plan of using community-based programs rather than juvenile jails has been cost-effective while cutting sharply into both overall crime and incidents of violence, the report said.
The institute said that "a system-wide culture change and major investments in evidence-based services" has overcome "a previously wasteful, punitive, ineffective, and often abusive juvenile justice system."
Joette Katz, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, said Wednesday that the national recognition is gratifying.
"Credit belongs to Gov. (Dannel P.) Malloy, the advocacy community, Court Support Services, Sen. (Toni) Harp and Rep. Toni Walker (both D-New Haven), and to the Department of Children and Families staff," Katz said in a statement. "Helping children in the community is a solution that we must continue to build upon."
The report found that Arizona, Minnesota, Louisiana and Tennessee all joined Connecticut in cutting youth incarceration by 50 percent or more between 2001 and 2010. For decades, Connecticut and New York were among the few states that treated 16-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system.
In 2007, the General Assembly raised the age that juveniles could be prosecuted as adults to 18, effective January 1, 2010, for 16-year-olds and July 1, 2012, for 17-year-olds. "Even before 17-year-olds became eligible for juvenile court on July 1, 2012, the new law had enabled 8,325 16-year-olds to avoid prosecution and punishment in the adult criminal justice system," the report says.
From 2000 to 2011, the state cut residential commitments from 680 to 216 in 2011. The state also closed one of its three youth detention centers -- in New Haven -- and reduced the under-18 population in adult prisons from 403 in January 2007 to 151 in July 2012. "Meanwhile, Connecticut expanded its investment in evidence-based, family focused adolescent treatment programs from $300,000 in 2000 to $39 million in 2009," the report says.
"The success across these diverse states in reducing the number of youth in confinement shows that there is no reason other states can't halve their populations as well," said Peter Leone, PhD., acting executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. "And the fact that some of the highlighted states made progress without a major realignment in funding means that economic factors should not be an excuse to avoid reform efforts."
Among the state's nonprofit agencies, the New Canaan-based Tow Foundation was credited with providing 300 grants totaling $12 million in support of juvenile justice reforms, including advocacy, research and direct services. The nonprofits supplemented the state's $137 million a year in juvenile justice services, programs and facilities.
Emily Tow Jackson, executive director of The Tow Foundation, said she applauds the state's achievements.
"The Tow Foundation has been proud to support our state partners from the legislature, state agencies, direct service providers and the advocacy community as they have worked collaboratively to transform the Connecticut juvenile justice system over the past decade," Jackson said in a statement. "The proof that we have gotten a tremendous return on our investments is that tens of thousands of Connecticut's young people are now benefiting from widespread policy and practice reform."
The report found that the state's traditional population of 15-and-under youth showed a 48 percent decline in arrests between 2002 and 2011, with violent crime arrests down 51 percent over that period.
Among 16-year-olds, total arrests fell 35 percent and serious violent crime arrests were reduced 26 percent, from 2009 to 2011, the first two years that 16-year-olds were eligible for juvenile court. "Meanwhile, after adjusting for inflation, the two agencies that administer Connecticut's juvenile justice system -- the Department of Children and Families and the Judicial Branch's Court Support Services Division -- spent $2 million less on juvenile programs and facilities in the 2011-12 than they had 10 years earlier," the report said.
Michael P. Lawlor, deputy secretary for justice policy in the state Office of Policy and Management, said Wednesday that the reductions in crime have also been noticed in the adult community. Several years ago, the adult prison population was around 20,000, but now it is about 16,600.
"None of this is a surprise other than as optimistic as we were, it worked out better than thought," said Lawlor, who as the co-chairman of the powerful legislative Judiciary Committee, helped author many of the reforms.
"All the finding of this juvenile justice report could also apply to the adult justice system," he said in a phone interview. "These reforms have been underway for years and now you're starting to see the difference. Crime is down and fewer are in prison. Violent guys are staying in prison longer. If you ever wanted to point to a public policy that worked, here you go. It's nothing about Democrats and Republicans. It's about a lot of smart people getting together on the front lines."
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